The way Alyssa Kent described the work of her school’s environmental group, Campus Greens, was almost quaint. “We’re building a garden, and we’re going to supply the lettuce that we grow to the school cafeteria,” said Kent, a junior at Wells College in Aurora, New York. “And we’re about to start a clean up. It’s just, like, a garbage pick-up.”
Kent and her fellow Campus Greens had traveled from upstate New York to Washington, D.C., to Power Shift 2011, a biennial conference created by the Energy Action Coalition to organize environmentally conscious students across the country. The Wells Campus Greens came by car; others, like the Florida A&M University student government, came by giant, gas-guzzling bus. Erin Schley, from the College of St. Benedict in Minnesota, was excited about the weekend’s educational opportunities. “Essentially we’re here for the workshops,” she said, “and we’re planning to take it back to campus and just spread the word, literally.”
But before word can be spread, it first must be preached—in this case, by Al Gore, the keynote speaker for Power Shift 2011. On a Friday night, Kent, Schley, and thousands of other students marched into the Washington Convention Center’s dark, cavernous ballroom to hear Gore speak. Red, blue, and green luminaires twisted and flashed above an empty stage while the speaker system pumped out alternative rock hits from the Dave Matthews Band and Coldplay. The music was a little dated for these kids (average age: probably 20), but the crowd wasn’t entirely young. An older man with a white beard and a “Steelworkers for Edwards” t-shirt stood as the students filed in, bobbing his head to John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change.”
Behind and on either side of the stage were large screens with the logo for Power Shift projected on them: a green silhouette of four young people erecting a windmill, a mixture of Iwo Jima imagery and Rivera-style social realism. It’s also the symbol for the Energy Action Coalition (EAC), which describes itself as the “hub of the youth climate movement.”
Power Shift, of course, isn’t just about cleaning up trash and planting community gardens; this is a political movement. As the EAC leaders who were introducing Gore reminded the students, “The reality is that right now, big polluters and corporate interests are starting to strip away our rights in our democracy. And we have to stand up and fight that.”
And without further ado, they giddily announced the Nobel laureate, Academy Award winner, former vice president of the United States of America, Al Gore! The students erupted with cheers as Gore trotted out on stage. He started right off by linking the climate change movement with—what else?—the fight for civil rights.
“I remember when my generation saw the fire hoses being turned on African Americans,” Gore said. “Young people asked their parents in that era, ‘Explain to me again why it’s okay to have legal discrimination on the basis of skin color,’ and when they could not answer that moral question coming straight from the conscience of young people, that’s when the laws began to change.” (This may have been a delicate allusion to the fact that Gore’s father, a Democratic senator from Tennessee, voted against the Civil Rights Act in 1964.)
It’s the same situation now with issues of climate change and environmental protection, Gore said. In effect, parents just don’t understand.
“Don’t they see the evidence?” Gore asked. “Don’t they hear what the scientists are saying? Do they actually believe this line from the large carbon polluters that the scientists are making this up, committing fraud, in order to get research grants?”
The circumstantial evidence alone is enough, Gore argued. Freak droughts and floods across the world, from Taiwan to Tennessee, are proof that global warming is happening and students ought to be agitating for a political solution.
Gore continued, now waxing scientific: “Because, as the temperature has gone up, warmer air has started holding much more moisture,” he explained, and some of the students, knowing a college lecture when they hear one, started fidgeting in their seats. “And when the storm conditions cause a downpour, much more of it falls at the same time, so you get these big flood events. And, partly because of the same phenomena, you’re seeing a longer period of time between the downpours in many areas, and the same temperatures drive down the soil moisture, so you’re getting these intense, prolonged extensive droughts at the same time.” At this point, more than a few necks had craned down toward cell phones. Gore went on.
“A new study came out at the end of last year”—more fidgeting—“projecting what the consequences of these historic droughts are going to be in the decades ahead. Are we supposed to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that this is not real? You know, the fact that this global warming pollution, principally CO2, traps the heat, that’s not some theory, that’s physics! You can’t negotiate with the laws of physics.”
Perhaps sensing that he was losing his smart-phone using, perpetually distracted audience, Gore shifted the subject to the millennial generation’s favorite subject. “It takes courage, and it takes leadership, and it’s up to you to give that message to our leaders,” Gore said. Raucous applause greeted this change of pace. Hey, the audience seemed to realize, he’s talking about us now! “And you have been doing so, and I commend you for doing that.”
Gore concluded with what marketing types term a “call to action.” “Some of you know the old African proverb that if you want to go quickly, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together,” he said. “We’ve got to go far quickly, which means we’ve got to get our act together, so let’s start it right here!” And the crowd went wild.
Some, however, were less than inspired. Peter Hoy and Molly Costello, both from Chicago, thought Gore was a squish.
“Al Gore’s not climate justice,” said Costello. “He’s still agreeing with the system of capitalism, which is the source of all of our woes in the first place. We’re saying that because he’s supporting capitalism, he’s not truly supporting climate justice.”
Hoy agreed, saying that gimmicks like carbon exchanges are just contributing to the problem. “These exchanges have shown so far that they’re not able to reduce emissions at an adequate level,” Hoy said. “It’s basically, what is the goal? Is the goal to make money, or is the goal to reduce carbon?” So, if not a capitalistic solution to climate change, then what? Cutching his cell phone, Hoy said, “I’d like to see a local economy where people are exchanging on a neighborhood level or a city level.”
Other students weren’t satisfied with the direction of the discussions during the Power Shift workshops. After a disappointingly lifeless session called “Sex and Sustainability” (half of the hundred or so students packed in the room fell asleep), Sean Dubois told me that the environmental movement’s focus on birth control access in third world countries was misdirected.
“The way I look at it, we’ve reached a certain point in society where the concentration should be toward education, enlightening ourselves as species,” said Dubois, a philosophy major at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. “I think about us transcending the planet. We’re so busy thinking about what we can do for the planet while we’re here. And I think about us and the fact that we have space travel and we’re working our way toward that.” He didn't say whether he thinks humans should leave Earth entirely.
“I think about us just being the first-born child of the Mother Earth,” Dubois clarified, “but at some point we need to quit using her up like you would mistreat your mom and eventually, well, she doesn’t want to have any more kids, she’s all worn out and used up. So, the idea is that we learn to become adults, you know, take accountability and responsibility for ourselves and leave home.”
“You know, I’m not trying to get into aliens and all the other stuff,” Dubois continued, “but I kind of see ourselves, when you look at ourselves and kind of how reckless we are as a species all over, we haven’t figured things out, that if there is other life out there that has transcended, maybe that’s what they’re waiting for us to do.”
But before the species takes its leave of Earth, we still have some issues to resolve here. That was the purpose of “Next Steps for White Allies,” a session moderated by Jennifer Langer Smith of Interfaith Youth for Climate Justice. Student leaders of environmental groups, Langer Smith noted, are “very white.” How can very white environmentalists be more inclusive of “people of color?” she asked.
“Inclusiveness” was the theme of the hour. When one student began speaking from the front of the room, another in the back interrupted him. “Just to be inclusive of everybody’s hearing and everything else, can you use the microphone?” she asked, quite seriously.
But no matter how inclusive the workshop was, there were still some pretty strict ground rules for our discussion, like “step outside your comfort zone,” “speak from personal experience,” and “practice self-care,” a concept which was circularly explained as “doing whatever you have to do to take care of yourself.”
We jumped into a conversation about how to become better white allies, and I discovered an additional, unspoken rule: snap your fingers, like beatniks in a coffee shop, to show approval. A subtle wave of such snapplause passed every time a student spoke up with a white ally platitude, like “diversity is not equality” and “don’t interact with people from a place of guilt.”
There was plenty of discussion about “white privilege” and the “oppressor-oppressed dichotomy,” but it wasn’t exactly clear what any of this had to do with the environment. Luckily, Langer Smith had the answer. “One day, I just started writing down how white privilege causes climate change,” she said. “Everything from silence to white supremacy to the ignorance of about a whole, like, side of not just your community, but you know, like, the world.” Not long after that, I decided to practice some self-care by getting up and leaving.